There’s a colloquialism that the Great Lakes region is America’s Third Coast, and it’s easy to see why. Standing in Michigan on the shores of the state’s titular lake, with sandy beaches stretching in both directions and a colossal blue sky overhead, you could easily be looking out to the Pacific Ocean.
Specialty coffee in the state is, understandably, concentrated in its southernmost urban centers—Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, and Detroit. There are outliers further north—both Lansing and Bay City have burgeoning coffee scenes—but Michigan’s northern resort towns have historically lagged behind.
That’s beginning to change. Traverse City, with an enviable lakeside location on the northwestern tip of Michigan’s glove, is undoubtedly a tourist epicenter. The town has, over the years, served as a gateway to the area’s myriad summer attractions—from hiking and fishing to winery tours and festivals—while itself generating a reputation for producing food, wine, beer and now coffee.
When visiting, it can be easy to just linger in and around Traverse City, but it’s worth taking the time to explore the countryside further out to get a real taste for what Michigan has to offer. To that end, here’s a list of coffee to enjoy the next time you’re in Traverse City, and one option to seek out if you find yourself further north.
A quick note for vegan-conscious vacationers: in a sign that the alternative milk wave has reached even this far north, oat milk is available at every cafe in this guide, which made my wife very happy.
Morsels Espresso + Edibles
Located on the east side of downtown Traverse City, with an outside seating area on the banks of the Boardman River and views out to West Grand Traverse Bay, Morsels Espresso + Edibles is a good place to start a coffee tour. A short stroll down Front Street from the bustling, touristy heart of Traverse City, Morsels lends a sense of calm—away from the crowds, surrounded by trees and water.
Although known primarily for the tiny cake bites that give the company its name (which include pun-tastic options such as Espresso Yourself and Matcha Made In Heaven), Morsels’ coffee lineup is not to be ignored. Intelligentsia provides the coffee, a La Marzocco GB5 cranks out espresso from atop a big granite counter, while Chemex and Hario V60 options are also available for those so inclined.
Seating here is plentiful and comfortable, and although it was quiet at the beginning of the summer season, it’s easy to see Morsels being inundated with customers at its peak. Pairing one of their bite-sized cakes with a Black Cat Espresso cortado makes it a worthy first stop.
Handily, the next cafe in this guide is less than a block directly south of Morsels.
Planetary Coffee started life, like so many coffee companies before them, inside a truck, traveling the streets of Traverse City and the surrounding area to serve coffee at various events, from farmer’s markets to summer festivals.
In December 2017, they moved to a more permanent home inside the State Street Marketplace, an indoor market featuring food, beer, vintage clothing, and more. This huge, light-filled space makes Planetary seem much bigger than it really is—there is a shared seating area in the center of the market, and an outside patio for when the weather warms up.
Using a Synesso MVP and Mahlkönig grinders, Planetary makes espresso drinks with Halfwit Coffee Roasters from Chicago. If lattes aren’t your thing they do a stellar cold brew, as well as house-made chai and the requisite pour-over options.
Planetary is the definition of starting small and growing smartly. As their following continues to increase around Michigan, and their coffee truck continues to be in demand over the summer months around the city, even more growth is sure to come.
To reach the next stop, you have to walk back down Front Street, through the throngs of vacationers debating which brewpub to choose for lunch, maybe stopping to glance upwards at the State Theatre’s gorgeous marquee. If you come during the Traverse City Film Festival in early August, there’s a good chance you’ll bump into Michael Moore, the festival’s founder, wandering around downtown. You might even run into him at our next cafe.
In the Warehouse District to the west of downtown, just past another brewpub, lies BLKMRKT, situated inside the upscale Warehouse MRKT retail center. The brainchild of Traverse City native (and Morsels alum) Chuck Korson, BLKMRKT’s ambiance is influenced by the former warehouse it calls home. A subdued palette, clean design, and abundance of natural light is balanced with greenery from houseplants dotted around, as well as original artwork on the walls.
A low bar and equally low-slung Kees van der Westen Spirit espresso machine gives the space a cohesive feel, allowing for less of a separation between barista and customer while drinks are being prepared. Speaking of drinks, BLKMRKT uses a rotating selection of guest roasters—currently Brooklyn’s Parlor Coffee—alongside their own in-house roasted coffee
BLKMRKT is as high-end a coffee experience as you’re likely to find in these parts, and wouldn’t be out of place in San Francisco or Chicago. The fact that it’s hiding away in Northern Michigan makes it more special, somehow—a secret waiting to be discovered.
Higher Grounds Coffee
To reach the penultimate coffee stop, you’ll need transportation of some kind.
On the southwest edge of downtown Traverse City, where the town begins to bleed out into the countryside, lies The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, formerly known as the Traverse City State Hospital and, before that, the Northern Michigan Asylum. The Village is an ambitious renovation project, turning the derelict (and faintly spooky) former asylum into apartments, shops, and restaurants, as well as 480 acres of conservation area surrounding it.
Higher Grounds Coffee shares a former laundry with the Left Foot Charley winery on the outer edges of the development, with a shared patio overlooking a green expanse of lawn that leads down to the main complex. Although ostensibly a coffee bar attached to a wholesale roastery, Higher Grounds offers a warm and welcoming environment, with lots of tile and wood and floor-to-ceiling windows to let in the sunshine.
A La Marzocco Linea Classic, supported by Mahlkönig and Mazzer grinders, provides espresso drinks, while a large selection of Higher Grounds coffees are available for pour-over. They also offer creative specialty drinks—The Buzz, made from honey and soda mixed with espresso and served over ice, is particularly refreshing on a warm spring day.
The neighborhood coffee house feel that Higher Grounds has generated extends to the takeaway coffee cup options, of which there are none. Instead, there is a wall of donated ceramic mugs that customers are welcome to take with them, return, or just keep. There are spots for recycling and even composting, all of which connects to Higher Grounds’ wider environmental and social goals, such as offering year-round bicycle delivery in Traverse City, or building schools in Ethiopia.
For the last leg of our Northern Michigan coffee tour, you’ll need to drive out of Traverse City, hugging the shore of Lake Michigan as US-31 winds its way northwards, past vineyards and through sleepy resort towns for about an hour and a half until you reach Petoskey.
Why Petoskey, you might ask? Well, aside from its claim to fame as the birthplace of The Blacklist star Megan Boone, it’s also the home of Dripworks Coffee, located in the historic Gaslight District just across US-31 from Petoskey’s picturesque marina.
A specialty cafe crossed with a French pâtisserie, Dripworks was formed by Northern Michigan natives Danielle Charles and Mike Davies. After living in Seattle and Vermont, as well as a year in London, the pair was inspired to bring what they’d learned abroad back to their home state by opening their own ideal coffee shop and bakery.
The cafe is set up galley-style, long and narrow with the bar on one side and booth seating on the other, with window seats and regular two-top tables toward the front. Lots of wooden furniture, white tile, and accents like metal cups and yellow stools give the space a farmhouse kitchen feel, which is echoed in the slate serving trays upon which sit a broad range of pastries—the blueberry pinwheel danish in particular comes highly recommended.
Coffee here is handled by a shiny white Slayer Steam, which pulls Madcap Coffee with the help of Mazzer and Mahlkönig grinders, while two Wilbur Curtis Seraphim brewers (also white) handle manual brewing, assisted by a Mahlkönig EK43. Coffee is not the only show in town, however, with a wide selection of loose leaf teas available, as well as the ever-popular matcha latte.
The fact that a coffee shop as polished and sophisticated as Dripworks can exist in a town as small as Petoskey is a testament to the work and dedication put in by the owners, as well as the changing tastes in this part of the country.
With all these cafe options in the area, it’s good to know that the next time you plan a vacation to the northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula, you can do so safe in the knowledge that you’ll never be far from great coffee.